Yes, that dying polar bear is connected to climate change (2023)

When wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen posted a picture of an emaciated, exhausted polar bear on Instagram in August, it elicited a huge response. Soon afterward, Nicklen returned to the same spot on Canada’s Baffin Island with filmmakers from his conservation group, SeaLegacy, to shoot video footage of the bear. He said he wanted people to see what a starving polar bear looks like, to give them a glimpse of what lies ahead for this species if human-caused global warming continues to rapidly melt the Arctic’s sea ice—the frozen platform from which polar bears hunt seals, their main food source.

Video of the dying bear, published to social media during the first week of December, has since been viewed by millions of people around the world. It is “gut-wrenching,” “soul-crushing,” and “rips your heart out of your chest.”Nicklen and his colleagues had tears running down their cheeks while their cameras were rolling.

Their viral video triggered several forms of backlash, ranging from animal lovers who said that the filmmakers should have fed or killed the bear, to climate skeptics and newspaper reporters who argued that what “everybody got wrong” was claiming a connection between the bear’s condition and climate change. Although some of the critics were right to point out that individual stories are not proof of population-wide trends, they were dead wrong about the connection between climate change and individual lives—those of humans as well as bears.

(Video) How Climate Change is Affecting Polar Bears

Eyes wide open. Like the filmmakers, I could not watch the starving bear without sobbing. Near death, the weary animal drags its back legs as it tries to walk. The saddest part for me, because it exemplifies what humans have done to this animal’s habitat, is when the bear searches for food in a rusty trash can and chews on a piece of foam from the seat of a snowmobile.

But I’m not just crying for one bear. I’m crying for all the species of living things that humans are crushing beneath our gigantic carbon footprints. I’m crying for my fellow humans, too: According to findings in the most recent Climate Vulnerability Monitor, published in 2012, climate change is already causing 400,000 premature deaths annually. I’m crying for future generations, for the estimated three in four people who will face the threat of lethal heat events by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The greater the delay in responding to climate change, the greater the risk to human lives and livelihoods.

Whether it’s a picture of hurricane-ravaged Texas, or a home burned to the ground in California, or a bear dying in Canada, we should not turn away from images that show us what we can expect if we allow climate change to continue unabated. We need to see, hear, and perhaps most important, feel the reality of what lies ahead.

(Video) Dr Susan Crockford -- White Lie: The Cruel Abuse of a Starving Polar Bear

The backlash. Some viewers were angered by the video, criticizing the filmmakers for not doing more to either save the bear or put it out of its misery. Cristina Mittermeier, co-founder of SeaLegacy and one of the National Geographic photographers on the scene, explained that she and her colleagues were too far from any village to haul hundreds of pounds of seal meat, that they were not carrying weapons, and that it would have been dangerous to approach the dying bear.

Of course, one picture does not a trend make. That’s the point made by climate skeptics and other critics who said that the bear might have been dying from a health issue or injury, rather than starvation, and that in any case a starving bear might have nothing to do with climate change. Some dubbed the video “fake news.” Others called it a public relations ploy by environmental activists, and took issue with one of seven hashtags that Mittermeier included in an Instagram post: #FaceofClimateChange. The critics posted images of fat, healthy bears taken in other places.

This debate is not new. A couple of years ago, people argued over whether a photo of a severely emaciated polar bear in Norway was “the new face of climate change.” More than a decade ago, climate skeptics said it was wrong for the film An Inconvenient Truth to show a lone polar bear struggling to swim in an iceless Arctic ocean and suggest that its plight was connected to climate change.

(Video) Polar Bears and Global Warming: Connecting the Dots to the Rest of Us

Why the video wasn’t misleading. Accusing Nicklen and Mittermeier of misleading viewers is itself misleading. In their posts to social media, the photographers emphasized that they were not drawing any conclusions about the bear’s death: “It is true that we don’t know what caused this animal to starve but we are certain that unless we curb carbon emissions, sea ice will continue to disappear and many more bears will starve,” they wrote.

The scientific consensus supports that view. In its final Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan, released in January of this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified the primary threat to polar bears as the “loss of sea-ice habitat due to the effects of climate change and the anticipated decline in marine prey.” The plan goes on to explain what is needed to save polar bears: “The single-most important action for the conservation of polar bears is reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary cause of Arctic warming and the loss of the bear’s sea-ice habitat. Without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered.”

Although polar bears are doing well in some places, those populations living in places with seasonal ice, like Baffin Island, are at great risk from climate change. The Arctic is melting faster than ever—at twice the rate of other regions, according to an annual Arctic Report Card released earlier this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

(Video) Polar bears and narwhals are dying as climate changes

A National Geographic explainer accompanying the video noted that the bear’s skeletal appearance and atrophied muscles are indicative of starvation, that the bear had no scars or other visible signs of injury, and that polar bears are not prone to disease. While the bear in the video could have been afflicted by something other than starvation, that seems at least as speculative as the filmmakers’ theory that the bear was starving to death.

Do the lives of individual animals matter? It is sad to see a polar bear slowly dying. It would be sad to see a seal pup being torn apart by a bear, too. Such events happen all the time, although they are rarely witnessed by millions of people. Like three gray whales getting trapped by pack ice—as happened near Point Barrow, Alaska, in 1988, triggering a massive media event and an expensive rescue attempt—the death of one bear is a common and natural occurrence. But as with the Point Barrow whales, the Baffin Island polar bear is giving many people a new perspective on its species and the fate of the world.

An individual dead bear is like an individual storm: It can’t be easily attributed to climate change. Increasingly, though, scientists can demonstrate the degree to which global warming makes the odds of extreme weather events and polar bear deaths more likely. For example, global warming made Hurricane Harvey’s rain three times more likely, according to a recent assessment by scientists from the Worldwide Weather Attribution effort. And the odds that a starving polar bear is starving because of climate change keep growing.

(Video) The real reason why the polar bear is the mascot for climate change

The Washington Post article about the bear video begins by reminding readers: “The world’s tragedies often have images that end up defining them: A five-year old screaming in Iraq after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers. A starving child being stalked by a vulture during a ruthless famine in Sudan.” The bear footage, the article said, “has served a similar purpose: as a rallying cry and stand-in for a largely unmitigated environmental disaster.”

An Associated Press photographer’s image of the naked and badly burned 9-year-old Vietnamese “Napalm Girl” did not depict a strike by US warplanes (the napalm bomb was dropped by a South Vietnamese pilot flying an American-made aircraft). The photo probably did not represent the beginning of a shift in American public opinion about the Vietnam War, nor did it bring the war to a swift close. Nevertheless, the emotional impact of the photograph—its fundamental truthfulness about the inhumanity of war—is undeniable.

A fundamental truth lies at the heart of the polar bear video, too. I only wish that photographers would be equally diligent in documenting the lives of children who are dying at this very moment because of malnutrition, diarrhea, and other impacts directly associated with our warming atmosphere. They, too, are the faces of climate change.

(Video) a POLAR BEAR is super close to OUR TOWN | How Longyearbyen handles Polar Bears on Svalbard


How does Polar Bear affect climate change? ›

Polar bears have relatively high genetic diversity within the species and can disperse over very long distances, suggesting that they may have some capacity to adapt to the ongoing changes in the Arctic. However, their dependence on sea ice makes them highly vulnerable to a changing climate.

Are polar bears starving due to climate change? ›

Polar bears could starve to extinction due to global warming

Climate warming is affecting the Arctic three times as fast as other parts of the world - even four times, according to some recent studies. So sea ice, the habitat of the polar bear, is gradually disappearing.

Why are the polar bears dying? ›

Climate change, and the loss of sea ice habitat, is the greatest threat to polar bears. The impacts of this change are felt first and worst in the Arctic. How does climate change affect polar bears? Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt and store energy for the summer and autumn, when food can be scarce.

How does climate change affect polar bears 2022? ›

Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals. But with the Arctic warming four times faster than the rest of the world, sea ice is melting out earlier in the summer and freezing up later in the fall. This forces bears to spend more time ashore, away from their natural prey.

What will happen to polar bears if the ice melts? ›

Polar bears are moving to land on the north coast of Alaska because the sea ice is melting and no longer connects to shore. This separates the bears from their preferred hunting grounds, the sea ice. With less sea ice, polar bears cannot hunt for food as often, and so they wind up with less to eat.

What will happen if polar bears go extinct? ›

If polar bears were to go extinct, the population of walruses, seals, whales, reindeer, rodents and birds would increase and get out of control.

How can we save global warming from polar bears? ›

With that being said here are 5 ways that you can contribute to saving the Polar Bears and their habitats!
  1. Live a More Eco-Friendly Lifestyle. This is one of the easiest things you can do to help save the Polar Bears. ...
  2. Recycle Recycle Recycle. ...
  3. Adopt A Polar Bear! ...
  4. Join WWF's Action Center! ...
  5. Educate Yourself!
Feb 27, 2018

When was climate change started? ›

Scientists generally regard the later part of the 19th century as the point at which human activity started influencing the climate. But the new study brings that date forward to the 1830s.

How does climate change affect animals? ›

Climate change has produced a number of threats to wildlife throughout our parks. Rising temperatures lower many species survival rates due to changes that lead to less food, less successful reproduction, and interfering with the environment for native wildlife.

Why is climate change happening? ›

Changes observed in Earth's climate since the mid-20th century are driven by human activities, particularly fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth's atmosphere, raising Earth's average surface temperature.

What will happen if polar bears go extinct? ›

If polar bears were to go extinct, the population of walruses, seals, whales, reindeer, rodents and birds would increase and get out of control.

Why do we need polar bears? ›

Importance of polar bears. Polar bears are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Over thousands of years, polar bears have also been an important part of the cultures and economies of Arctic peoples.

How does climate change affect polar regions? ›

The warmer temperatures are having impacts in the Arctic region. Sea ice is melting, frozen ground (called permafrost) is thawing, and habitat is shrinking for wildlife that rely on cold temperatures. Arctic sea ice cover is shrinking at a rate of 13% per decade.

How can we save polar bears from climate change? ›

What You Can Do to Help Polar Bears. The largest threat to polar bears is the decrease in sea ice due to the changing climate. We all have a responsibility to reduce our energy use now to protect sea ice habitat for polar bears and other arctic wildlife.


1. a POLAR BEAR is super close to OUR TOWN | How Longyearbyen handles Polar Bears on Svalbard
(Cecilia Blomdahl)
2. 42) A Critical Thinking Look at Global Warming & Climate Change
(Nick Of Time)
3. Global Warming | s.1 ep.2 |
(Appointed To Promote Christian Lifestyle)
5. Ice melting endangers polar bears
(Associated Press)
6. Can Polar Bears help predict climate change? Find out with Computer Vision! | COM218
(Microsoft Developer)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Duane Harber

Last Updated: 03/16/2023

Views: 5871

Rating: 4 / 5 (51 voted)

Reviews: 82% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Duane Harber

Birthday: 1999-10-17

Address: Apt. 404 9899 Magnolia Roads, Port Royceville, ID 78186

Phone: +186911129794335

Job: Human Hospitality Planner

Hobby: Listening to music, Orienteering, Knapping, Dance, Mountain biking, Fishing, Pottery

Introduction: My name is Duane Harber, I am a modern, clever, handsome, fair, agreeable, inexpensive, beautiful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.